New UK project to prove feasibility of quantum technology for precise maritime navigation

Quantum sensors on a ship (Photo: University of Birmingham)

The UK Quantum Technology Hub Sensors and Timing, led by the University of Birmingham, has awarded funding for research to improve the precision of maritime navigation.

The project, funded by £600,000 (US$764,000) from the hub’s Partnership Resource Fund (PRF), is being led by Professor Tom Pike at Imperial College London and Dr Simon Calcutt at the University of Oxford. It aims to develop the missing component to transform an existing gravity gradiometer developed by hub scientists into a hybrid instrument that will extend the hub’s map-matching navigation technology to applications in maritime environments.

This will allow navigation that will not only rely on satellite signals, but will measure the localised gravity field produced by underground conditions which can be matched to gravity maps to establish a vessel’s precise location.

Receiving stable and accurate location data whilst at sea is vital, and this has not yet to date been achieved due to satellite vulnerabilities. This crucial need has been underlined in the Maritime 2050 report, compiled by the UK Government’s Department of Transport in 2019, which states: “A key problem which must be addressed in navigation safety terms is the overwhelming reliance on Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) with its inherent vulnerabilities to man-made interference and space weather. There are numerous examples of accidents and incidents associated with navigation error.”

The team will exploit gravity gradiometer technology developed by Quantum Technology Hub academics, to ensure its effectiveness on a moving platform. Hub academics are already working closely with industry partners, such as Network Rail and the Lighthouse Authority, to implement map matching navigation, and this project aims to add electronics that are able to compensate for the dynamics of the deployment platform to offer higher frequency capabilities required for resilient maritime navigation.

The sensor instrument is based on the MEMS seismometers previously developed by Professor Pike for the NASA InSight mission, which is currently operating on the surface of Mars, and has a 0.3 ng/rtHz performance. These seismometers are helping to study the interior of the planet by listening to “marsquakes.”

Creating an instrument which can detect a gravity signal from a mobile deployment is an incredible challenge. Gravity sensors require extreme sensitivity to be able to detect signals, and a typical maritime, or airborne deployment experiences acceleration of 0.1g or more.

The instrument aims to uniquely detect signals at the nano-g level.

Professor Tom Pike hopes the technology that has been proven on Mars may be applied in Earth’s oceans to better guarantee resilient and safe navigation for vessels.

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